Review: Raw 2 (XB)

I’ve had my PS2 for about a year and a half longer than I’ve had my Xbox. So, as a wrestling fan, I’ve played a lot of Smackdown and find it to be a fun, very playable game. When Raw came out for the PC last year, I picked it up the first time I saw it, because I had heard so many good things about it compared to Smackdown, and if Smackdown was that good, how good must Raw be?

Within about half an hour, I became convinced that the people on the net, singing the praises of Raw, must be doing so because they’ve never even touched a controller to play Smackdown (the fallacy of judging by screenshot). I found the controls ponderous; the movesets thin; and the learning curve steep. I also discovered two very important aspects of playing Raw that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read anywhere:

1. If you’re down in energy, it is virtually impossible to come back to win. This is because most of your moves WILL get countered.

2. Hitting a finisher does not guarantee a win. Not even hitting two or three finishers.

Admittedly, my copy of Raw for the PC didn’t come with an instruction book, so I was a bit handicapped in my effort to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing. However, this doesn’t justify the other shortcomings in the game: The abysmal CAW selection and graphics; the complete lack of a career mode; the weak-ass gauntlet-style belt series. The figure graphics looked wonderful, but the grapple animations were segmenty. Pauses to counter were too long. Faces were terrible.

Now, there was one really REALLY cool part of Raw: The ability to tailor your entrance down to the color and flash rate of the lights. Pyro, fog, lighting, it was all at your fingertips. That was the one thing Raw had that I wished Smackdown: Shut Your Mouth had stolen (hopefully they’ll get a clue for Here Comes The Pain).

Now, it’s not that everything about the game was bad; it was that it could have been so much better with just a little more work. It was close to being a good wrestling game, but it needed a little more attention; more care. I was sure that the powers-that-be would figure out the game’s shortcomings, and it was with this feeling of optimism that I strode into Best Buy and purchased Raw 2.

Game: Raw 2
Platform: Xbox
Distributor: THQ
Developer: Anchor
# Of Pin Attempts CPU Tried In 1st Match: 32. I’m not kidding.

GAMEPLAY

Well, I’ll say this much for it. It’s not quite as impossible to come back.

For those unfamiliar with the basic control theory behind Raw, I’ll lay it out for ya. You’re supposed to run this like an actual wrestling match. This means that, if at all possible, you shouldn’t use a particular move more than once during a match. Mixing up moves keeps it interesting for the crowd who get behind you more the more moves you pull off. Eventually, you are able to execute your finisher.

The same basic gameplay formula applies here; although, admittedly, it is easier to hold your own in this version. In the first Raw game, once you got down just a little bit in energy, your opponent would find a way to reverse everything you threw at him. Here, not so much, thank goodness. In fact, with a small amount of acclimation to my Smackdown-trained fingers, I actually got good at the thing. Of course, I helped myself out by loading up my character with offensive power in submissions.

Submissions here are an improvement over everything I’ve seen before for one really REALLY simple reason: When you don’t get them to tap out, instead of just dropping the hold like you had ADHD, they end the sequence with a hold-breaking reversal by your opponent. Kicking out of the ankle lock, for example. That’s a small little detail that really adds to (or more accurately, keeps from subtracting from) the realism of the game. You also don’t have to do a million submissions to get opponents to tap out, which is nice.

If only pinning were that easy. I’ll say it again: If you’re allowed to hit the finisher, you should be allowed, in the vast majority of cases, to pin immediately. Once again, the RAW developers haven’t quite figured that out. Even after a fairly long match, hitting a finisher, or even two in succession, is still not a guarantee of victory, though; and that annoys me deeply.

Moreover, there are two big, huge, glaring, nasty, puzzling, just-plain-silly problems with the A.I. These are problems so big that I can’t believe they made it into the release version. The first problem: When one of your sworn enemies runs-in on one of your matches, they don’t necessarily attack you, they just attack whoever is closest. You, your opponent, somebody else who’s run-in (my personal record so far is to have three different sworn enemies run in on the same match) they just hammer on whoever is closest. Also, and I’ll file this as the same problem, your opponent keeps trying to come after you, almost to the exclusion of everybody else, regardless of whether they’re face or heel, or whether they’ve been hammered on themselves or not. Supposedly, each character has a personality type already registered, so what would be so hard about USING it in a game situation? I had a run-in happen during a match with uber-face Hulk Hogan, and he completely ignored the fact that somebody was beating on his opponent, let alone stealing HIS spotlight! Not realistic at best and damn annoying at the worst.

The second problem: Whenever you play the CPU, when you reach a point where the computer can get a two count on you, and maybe a three count if you don’t tap the buttons, it will try and pin you. Makes sense, right? No. I mean that is ALL it will try to do. This actually happened in my first Raw 2 game. At one point I was laid out in the middle of the ring. The CPU tried to pin me. I kicked out at two. The CPU got up, stomped on me once, then tried to pin me again. Kicked at two. The CPU got up, stomped on me once, then tried to pin me again. Kicked out at two. Repeat about 20 times. I’m not kidding. Eventually, the CPU decided to try a grapple on my head that I reversed and I was able to get up. For that travesty alone, I’m glad that they canned the development team.

And THEN we get to Season Mode (add parsley, thyme, and androstendione and bring to rolling boil). I figured anything would be better than the slapdash, run-the-gauntlet title mode from the last game. Turns out I was right, but just barely.

Here’s the deal. You start out right after Wrestlemania and go through a year, kind of like the career mode from Smackdown:SYM. The similarities end there. First of all, there is apparently only one week per month in the RAW world, because there is only one episode of RAW and one episode of Smackdown between pay-per-views; and the brand split must only involve titles, because all of the same wrestlers are on both shows. Second, your character has a definite alignment, which makes them more likely to be friends with certain wrestlers and enemies with others. This is supposed to add a bit of spice and individual flavor to the season mode and it would be all well and good if it actually meant anything other than deciding who’s going to run-in on your matches. Okay, there are a few generic cut-scenes where you’re attacked by one of your enemies and one of your friends comes to save you (and truth be told, that’s pretty cool) but there’s no real storylines, per se. Third, you can do a lot more than interfere in matches now. You can encourage your friends backstage, you can have a confrontation backstage, you can attack somebody backstage, you can steal stuff out of other wrestler’s locker backstage (and this, best I can tell, is the major mechanism to unlock things in the game; which is a little bit creepy to me), you can even call out wrestlers in the ring. The problem is that you have no idea whether anything you decide to do will work. There’s apparently some sort of random number generator that decides whether or not you’re successful at anything you try to do, because I have found no rhyme or reason to it. Oh, and if you do something backstage besides rest, it costs you energy; energy that you may need in your match. You can rest to reclaim some of your energy, but that’s not even a sure thing. By six months into my season, resting was completely worthless to my character, because any time I tried to rest him, he would get attacked in the back and not only not gain energy, but lose some more.

And then there are bugs. In fact, I’m glad this review is a little later than I wanted it because it allowed me to find a BIG bug in the Season Mode. Now, it took me over two full seasons, most of that with a popularity rating of 100, to get a heavyweight title shot. Wrestlers with far lower popularity were getting title shots, and winning them, and I was curtain-jerking with Randy Orton. Finally, out of the blue, I get a title shot against Austin for the WWE Title. The match gets going and I’m kicking his ass, and then the parade of interlopers shows up. Orton, Test, AND Torrie Wilson come out and mess with my match (of course, not really attacking ME, just attacking who ever was closest to them at any given time). Eventually I get all three of them to bail, and finally finish off Austin. We go to the congratulations cut-scene, and that was my character celebrating in the ring, and I thought all was well”¦.

“¦.until the next show, when the card says that the new WWE Champion is RANDY ORTON.

Okay, so I’m trying to make the best of it. I’ve been in a feud with Randy Orton since week 1. I get through RAW and get to Smackdown and “Call Out” Randy, thinking that it would be a no-brainer and I would get a title shot. Instead, TORRIE FREAKIN’ WILSON comes out and I get booked in a match with HER at the PPV. Eventually I started a new season and didn’t mess with anybody outside of destroying them in my matches and I finally did get a title shot against Shawn Michaels for the WWE Title, which I won decisively”¦.AND which the game allowed me to keep afterward.

Personal frustrations aside, face’ and heel’ were concepts that really didn’t seem to matter to the bookers; and for some bizarre reason, there were a LOT of tag matches with Steve Austin teaming up with Shannon Moore. (?)

As for the gimmick matches, HitC is fun, Tables is kinda fun, Cage matches are a little cheap, and TLC/Ladder matches are REALLY cheap. Computer setting up the ladder, climbing up and grabbing the belt inside of a minute, cheap. The online FAQs even talk about how difficult Ladder matches are, so it’s not just me.

GRAPHICS

Enough with the bad, let’s get a little positive. The graphics are better all-around in the game, particularly better in the case of the Create-A-Wrestler feature. There still isn’t the fidelity of control or the absolute glut of accessory options available in Smackdown, but it’s a vast improvement over its predecessor. I particularly like the scale feature, which I think is set up even better than the Smackdown version. Maybe I just like the idea of making the heads really big and the bodies really little and creating the characters from Mucha Lucha, I don’t know. I just think it’s cool.

Of course, they knew they had a good thing with the entrance editor, so they fleshed it out even a bit more this year. Out-freakin’-standing. They’ve added the ability to create simple Titantron movies featuring user-defined text and some canned move shots so that you don’t have to use another wrestler’s movie. You still have all the control you had before, but now with even more options. More pyro, more lighting options, more light sets to tweak, more cowbell. It’s a fine example of taking a strength and building just enough on it to keep it fresh.

The wrestling is more fluid this time around. The pauses aren’t so obnoxious, the movements not quite so haphazard. Collision detection seems to be good but with a few foibles, like taking off for a clothesline about five feet too early and completing the move just as you get to your opponent and still bowling him over like you went through him. Pretty darn good on the whole, though.

As for the wrestler models themselves, it’s REALLY hit-and-miss. It must be a thing with wrestling games, because I remember thinking the same thing after SD:SYM came out, and Alex Lucard made the same comments about Wrestlemania XIX in his review. Some of the models, like Hurricane, Hogan, and Booker T; look almost photorealistic, they’re that well modeled. Some of the others; like pretty much all of the Divas, have horrible faces. Overall, they did a really good job, but there are some definite clinkers in there.

Collision detection is pretty good, as is the transitions between cameras during moves, but not perfect. My big example here is that, when I would spear someone, they would fly backward, but fall on their stomachs. It really took away from the visceral appeal of the move for me. You can actually break up pins and even submissions quite easily, and there are only a few, as opposed to a lot of instances where you go to hit somebody on the ground and you go right through them because the game decided they were “getting up.” Frame rates stay good until you get six wrestlers on the screen. The rate drop then is noticeable but not obnoxious; not nearly as obnoxious as Triple H’s refusal to job, at least.

SOUND

I’m not sure if the lack of commentary is a good thing or not. Wrestling commentary engines are notoriously bad (“Edge”¦and CHRISTIAN”¦.are competing continually!”) but then again, if you don’t have it, things get pretty damn boring. In-game sounds are realistic, although I’d prefer a little more variation in the crowd noise. The wrestler voices are hardly noticeable over the background music; but I’m okay with that. You don’t really hear them talk during TV matches anyway.

Apparently you can rip music to use as character entrance music. I haven’t had a chance to try this out (bad, BAD Cory! No title shot!) but the FAQs tell you how to, so I’ll believe them and pronounce this a Good Thing. There is a Bad Thing though: They apparently couldn’t secure rights for the actual music for several wrestlers (namely those with outside-produced music), which sucks. However, with the custom soundtrack capability, if you REALLY need RVD’s theme music, you can put that sucker right back in there for him.

FUN FACTOR

The actual gameplay IS fun. The controls are fairly easy, and allow for a lot of variety in maneuvers, and most of the time the A.I. isn’t terrible. I realize that video game developers have to walk a very fine line. On one side of that line is an A.I. which is stupid; on the other side is an A.I. that’s cheap. Anyone who can approximate that line should be commended, and this game walks that line”¦.most of the time. The run-in logic diverges wildly into Stupid territory, while the ad nauseum pin attempts swing back deep into Cheap. Multiplayer, though, is a blast with this game. No doubt about it.

The biggest, nastiest problems are with the Season Mode. As much as I played it, I couldn’t figure out any rhyme or reason to the backstage actions. The result was a feeling of helplessness and confusion. Hell, I would’ve preferred it if you had to go into Vince McMahon’s office every week to tell him what you wanted to do for that week and have Triple H stop his fellating long enough to tell you no. At least there’d be a degree of reason behind it all.

But even with the A.I. and Season Mode bugs, this is still a fun game to pick up and play. The ability to have several players for one Season Mode (and the ability to toggle those players on and off for any given week — good call Anchor) is a really good idea. The controls have been refined to a point where you don’t feel powerless if you get a little behind on energy. Before it seemed like you could only use 5% of you moves when you were trying to come back, lest you get reversed, but since the finishers were keyed on the variety of moves that you would do, you wouldn’t gain any heat for it and were basically screwed. Now you’re a lot less likely to get reversed for any given move, and it’s far less damaging to you when you do get reversed.

Also, there are unlockables in this game, which is good, but there’s no listing that I can find that tells you what they are or how to unlock them, which is bad.

Obviously, we had no idea what’s going to happen next year after the dismissal of the Raw development team from Anchor. There is speculation that Yuke’s will take over production of all three titles, and if that happens, I hope they retain a lot of this game in the next. Really, I don’t think it would take much to correct the A.I. and Season Mode problems, which is why I am so pissed at the Anchor development team. They had a slam dunk with this game and blew it by letting some obvious bugs walk out the door with it. It’s not a failure of a game, but it had potential to be a classic wrestling game, instead of a moderately good wrestling game.

It’s a fun wrestling game with some real problems in Season Mode. If you can get over that, or if you are a social wrestling gamer, give this one a whirl. If you’re CAW fans, though, allow adequate time for character creation. Our average was about two hours for a character designed from scratch.

Ratings
Gameplay: 6.0
Graphics: 7.5
Sound: 7.0
Fun Factor: 7.0